Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Theater Review: The Lion King

Location: Minskoff Theatre, 200 W. 45th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official The Lion King site

Starring: Dashaun Young, Derek Smith, Nathaniel Stampley, Danny Rutigliano, Tom Alan Robbins, Ta’Rea Campbell, Tshidi Manye, Cameron Pow

My Review: Yes, The Lion King opened on Broadway over 10 years ago, but it’s taken me this long to go see it. And the only reason I finally saw it was thanks to the good people at who gave me a free pair of tickets through a drawing they had on Twitter. Rarely, if ever, has The Lion King offered discounted tickets, and I couldn’t justify going to see a show where orchestra seats go for around $125, especially a show I felt ambivalent about due to my ambivalence towards its source material (Disney’s animated film, The Lion King). But oh, how people loved The Lion King on Broadway. The puppets! The sets! The majesty of it all! So I know I’m sure to be vilified when I say that after finally seeing it, I feel just as underwhelmed as I thought I would.

The story is the same story we all saw back in 1994: Mufasa the lion rules over the animal kingdom in Africa and looks forward to the day when his young son, Simba, will grow up and take his place as the new king. Mufasa’s evil brother, Scar, is jealous of Simba, longs to be king himself, and plots to make that happen. So he arranges to have Mufasa killed, tells Simba it’s all his fault, Simba runs away, Scar becomes king and leads the kingdom to ruin. Years go by, Simba grows up and hears about what his uncle has done. Can he go back home to fight his uncle, face his past, and claim what is rightfully his?

As I said before, I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie The Lion King. I liked it in the sense that I like all of Disney’s animated features, but it wasn’t one of my favorites. But the big draw The Lion King the stage musical has is the direction and puppet design of Julie Taymor. And I’m not denying that the puppets are amazing. The opening number—“The Circle of Life”—is an incredible sight to see, as elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, antelope, and giraffes all process through the theater aisles to join the onstage celebration of Simba’s presentation to the kingdom. But once that scene was over and I was used to seeing both the puppets and the actors who manipulate them, I was left wondering, “What else does this show have to offer?” Sadly, not much.

I’ve always found the story of The Lion King to be a poorly watered-down version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and that’s no exception in the stage show. The acting abilities of the performers are uneven, with some being remarkable (Tshidi Manye as the wise monkey Rafiki), some being overly labored (the child actors playing young Simba and Nala), and most merely mimicking the characters from the movie (Danny Rutigliano and Tom Alan Robbins as Timon and Pumbaa). All of the original music from the movie is there, as well as some new songs (also created by Elton John and Tim Rice, who did the movie music), but none of the new additions flow well and feel like exactly what they are—filler to make the show longer than 80 minutes.

I realize that The Lion King is primarily a show meant for families—a “safe” show to see to introduce children to live theater, and for that I give it credit. It stays so faithful to the movie, so any kid who enjoyed that is bound to enjoy the stage production. But any adult who is looking for more in their theater experience than impressive sets and costumes, should really look elsewhere.

Bottom Line: After so many years of hearing how “amazing” The Lion King is, I’m glad I finally saw it. But I’m really, REALLY glad I saw it for free.

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